The stunned response -- which through the repetition of cable news has now reached the standard of cliche -- of those in denial about the breadth and depth of gun violence in America is some variant of the statement, "I can't believe it happened here." This is often followed by a bewildered recitation of the up-until-he-pulled-the trigger attributes of the shooter. Rarely acknowledged is the fact that few fully understand or are aware of the pressures and frailties of others' lives, sometimes even within our own families.
The potential for devastation when such pressures intersect with a gun is made clear in a new study released today by my organization, the Violence Policy Center, titled American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States. Because there is no national, comprehensive data collection on murder-suicides (where the murderer commits one or multiple homicides, and then shortly after commits suicide), the study used a national clipping service to collect every reported murder-suicide in the United States from January 1, 2007 through June 30, 2007. Although this means that some murder-suicides were missed during the six-month study period, the analysis is most likely the largest study conducted on murder-suicide in the U.S.
During this six-month period, at least 554 Americans died in murder-suicides, with the vast majority (88.5 percent) involving a firearm. Using these figures, the study estimates that more than 1,100 Americans died in murder-suicides in 2007 -- ranging from high-profile mass shootings like the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech massacre to familial shootings claiming the lives of spouses and children. Nine states had 10 or more murder-suicides in the six-month period of the study: Florida (24), Texas (24), California (17), Pennsylvania (14), Arizona (12), Georgia (12), New York (11), North Carolina (10), and Ohio (10). Additional study findings from the six-month survey period include:
- Of the 554 murder-suicide deaths, 234 were suicides and 320 were homicides. Ninety-five percent of murder-suicides were committed by men.
- Nine murder-suicide events occurred in the United States each week during the study period.
- Seventy-three percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner (spouse, common-law spouse, ex-spouse, or girlfriend/boyfriend). Of these, 94 percent were females killed by their intimate partners.
- Forty-five of the homicide victims were children and teens less than 18 years of age. Forty-four children and teens less than 18 years of age were survivors who witnessed some aspect of the murder-suicide.
- Most murder-suicides occurred in the home (75 percent).
All too often, lost among the statistics are the actual lives ended and families destroyed by such acts:
In March 2007, Michigan newlyweds James Hawkins and Allynn McDade were found dead in their home. Hawkins, 49, shot and killed his wife, 26, with a handgun as they argued while their four children prepared for school. A family friend saw the children, ages three, six, seven, and nine, looking out the window, went inside to investigate, and found the couple's bodies. Hawkins shot his wife and had fired at the oldest child before killing himself.
In January 2007, relatives entered a Florida home "festooned with holiday decorations" to find David Bryant, 58, and his wife Cathy, 53, shot to death. Sheriff's officials determined David shot his wife and then took his own life in the couple's bedroom. The couple retired from the corrections division of the Sheriff's office in 2004 and had just adopted a dog the week prior to the incident. A former colleague at the Sheriff's department said, "They were a happy couple as far as anybody knows... Sometimes things happen to people behind closed doors."
From homes and businesses to schools and churches, murder-suicide wreaks havoc on American families and communities each year. Until more Americans realize, "It can -- and does -- happen here," this toll will continue unabated.